promoting the sustainable and responsible use of cobalt in all forms

Cobalt in food

Cobalt is an essential metal, needed for the health of ruminant animals, such as cows and sheep. It is also needed by various environmental bacteria and other microscopic forms of life that play an important role in the biodiversity of our world.

Bacteria in the stomachs of ruminant animals transform cobalt into cobalamin – the form of cobalt needed by animals and humans.

Who needs cobalamin?

Cobalamin is more commonly known as Vitamin B12. Humans and all non-ruminant animals need cobalamin “ready-made” in their diet. Cobalamin is so important to human health that the human body has a special delivery system just for obtaining cobalamin from the diet, called “intrinsic factor”.

Cobalamin is needed for blood cell formation, and consequently one of the main deficiency effects is anaemia with a decrease in red blood cells. Cobalamin is also essential for healthy brain and nervous system function, as well as in DNA synthesis, fatty acid synthesis and energy metabolism.

Deficiency and toxicity

Cobalt deficiency has been a concern historically in farm animals, e.g., “bush sickness” in New Zealand which was cured by adding cobalt to the fertilizers. Cobalamin deficiency in humans is a realistic concern for vegans and vegetarians. It is becoming a major concern in patients who have undergone weight-loss surgery. Their follow-up nutritional counselling focuses on providing absorbable forms of cobalamin,e.g. as nasal sprays. Patients lacking the “intrinsic factor” need cobalamin in similar forms.

Anything is potentially harmful if you are exposed to excess amounts. This also applies to cobalt, and –to a lesser extent- cobalamin. Cobalt overexposure can be a concern in the workplace, and it is addressed by adequate risk-control measures such as personal protective equipment of the workers. The CI and the cobalt industry are actively addressing health concerns related to cobalt, such as inhalation, skin sensitisation and systemic effects. Additional CI documents are available to address those individual concerns.

How do animals get their needed amount of cobalt?

Cobalt is an essential element for plants and animals (Vitamin B12). Ideal bodily concentrations are actively maintained in tissues and body fluids depending on metabolic requirements. Animals can obtain cobalt directly from the water they drink and the food they eat.

There is no evidence of biomagnifiation of cobalt (i.e. the increase in cobalt going up the food chain) but rather it exhibits biodilution (i.e. decrease in concentration of an element with an increase in the food chain), particularly in upper levels of both aquatic and terrestrial food chains.

What is the cobalt content of your food?

Top groups for Co in the human diet are: milk and dairy products, which account for approximately 32% of the total Co intake; fish and shellfish, which account for approximately 20%, and condiments, sugar and oils, which account for about 16%.

Chocolate contains the highest level of Co, with molluscs and crustaceans, and dried fruit and nuts also containing high levels in comparison to other foods.

Cobalt content in various foodstuffs

Food Group Concentration (mg/kg)
Bread 0.006
Breakfast cereals 0.008
Rice 0.010
Other cereals 0.001
Milk 0.001
Cheese 0.018
Eggs and derivatives 0.005
Butter 0.018
Oils 0.018
Meats 0.008
Poultry and game 0.002
Offal 0.033
Fish 0.007
Crustaceans and molluscs 0.046
Vegetables (excluding potatoes) 0.006
Pulses 0.008
Fruits 0.009
Dried fruits and nuts 0.041
Chocolate 0.050
Sugar and derivatives 0.021
Soups 0.006
Ready meals 0.008

Photo credit: National Institutes of Health